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Kathryn Rutherford Blog Header

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I Remember Mama

"A mother is she who can take the place of all others
but whose place no one else can take."

Cardinal Mermillod 1824-1892


    Today is Mother's Day.  In honour of all Mothers around the world, I thought the best subject of today's post would be about the importance of capturing images of the women in your life. 
     Most of the postings on this site are about photographic restorations and the history and insights into photography.  Today's subject is going to deviate just a little bit.  It will not only involve photography, but original artwork as well.  It is still, all about Mama.
    In 2009, a new restaurant was to open in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, called "Mama's Farmhouse". The all-you-can-eat menu would consist of recipes from the personal collection of the female matriarch of the owner's family.  Country Fried Steak, Roasted Pork, Sweet Potato Casserole, Banana Pudding, Peach Cobbler.... and so much more, all made from scratch from Mama's original recipes and served in abundance.  YUM, YUM!
    The entire decor of the restaurant was to be a photographic history of Mama and her descendants.   Mama's own portrait was to become the trademarked symbol of the restaurant, but there was a problem. There were no appropriate photographs of Mama that could be used as the trademark or as the focal point of the restaurant's decor. 
    Only two photographs existed of Mama. One was from the early 1900's where Mama stood in the living room of the family home surrounded by her husband and children and a framed and shrouded portrait of a deceased member of the family. (This was one way to take a family portrait and include members that had already passed on.)  Mama had a head in the professional looking portrait, but her main body and shoulders were obscured by other family members.  Mama was in her late 20's at the most in this picture. 
    I was able to take this photograph and airbrush out the other members of the family to create a younger version of Mama, but, this certainly would not do for the restaurant's trademark portrait.
    The only other photograph ever taken of Mama was recorded at the end of her life just before her death in 1963.  The problem with this photograph was that it was a tiny, blurry image of Mama standing outdoors in bright sunlight with two other unknown woman......wearing a hat. For the restaurant's trademark portrait Mama needed to be looking aged, yet lovely, and as most of the family remembered her, but definitely not blurry and out of focus and, most certainly, NOT wearing a hat.
    With the recommendation of other artists and framers, the owners arrived at my Heirloom Art Studio in hopes that I would be able to assist with the retouching, enlargement and restoration of the family portraits for the restaurant decor.  They also hoped that, with my reputation as a fine art portrait artist, I would be able to create a portrait of Mama suitable for the trademark and name of the restaurant.  This was going to be a challenge, but one that I could certainly enjoy as my specialty.
     The family set about locating one photograph after another which I would subsequently enhance, colour correct, restore, enlarge and deliver for framing. Creating the needed portrait for Trademark Registration, would take an entirely different route.
    After enlarging the 1900's portrait of Mama to a 20x24 image and airbrushing out the other family members, I delivered a key portrait of Mama (seen in the top photograph above) framed in an antique reproduction walnut oval frame with convex curved glass. Mama appeared in all her early beauty and was hung on the wall of the restaurant.  Now began the fun part.
    Did you know that all of human anatomy is mathematical?  Every part of the head and body can be measured to exact size and standards.  What is more fascinating is that the body, in particular the head, ages mathematically as well.  The eyes recess into the eye sockets according to measurements, the ears drop, the chin line becomes less than smooth and all shifts according to a ratio of measurements of proportion to age. 
    You see this mathematical shift miraculously happen on forensic television shows through the advances of digital technology, but my studio isn't as supplied with that high end digital software.  We would simply have to rely on the original art and proportion knowledge on which the software is based and upon which I am greatly familiar.
    Let us get to work.
    I first scanned the negative of the newly created portrait of Mama in her twenties into my computer.  Using digital brushes from high end drawing software, I began to hand draw on top of the first portrait (no buttons were pushed to accomplish this task) to age Mama into her seventies as the customer had requested.  The only point of reference which I had to make the changes were my years of knowledge and expertise, mathematical calculations and the very blurry photograph from 1960. 
    Slowly and surely Mama's skin sagged, muscles relaxed, her hair thinned and lost it's colour.  Her chin line became less defined yet the sparkle in her eyes and that tiny little smirk of hers remained.  When my digital drawing was completed Mama was at last, and incredulously, delivered to the customer appropriately aged into her seventies and in appearing in full colour.
    The customer was delighted and said the portrait was an exact depiction of what the current descendants remembered of her.  I was, once again, overjoyed by my accomplishment and breathed a sigh of relief that this major portion of the restaurant project was complete.
    Or....perhaps I was a bit too hasty in my contentment.
    Within a week, the customer phoned stating that perhaps Mama was a bit too old (and unfattering?) to be a permanent Registered Trademark.  The portrait was certainly considered accurate, but would it be possible to reduce her age to her fifties and create a portrait more lovely in nature?  Why certainly, was my reply and I set to work just as before to age Mama once again, only to stop this time short of the math that would take her too far into her "golden years". 
    Mama, in her seventies, was attired in the customary sweater she always wore and which was seen in the blurry photograph the family provided.  If Mama were to appear in her fifties, I would have to get creative and find appropriate clothing for the new portrait.
    According to my calculations, Mama would have been fifty in the 1920's.  Eeek!   This would have been the Roaring 20's, the days of the "Flapper" dresses and clothing slightly riske for a trademarked portrait.  Fashion sported sleeveless dresses in the scoop necked t-shirt style and, although this was high fashion and certainly appropriate for the time, I didn't think it would make a good head and shoulders trademark for our distinguished Mama.  To the history books and fashion plates!! 
    After pouring through several publications in my vast library and drawing upon my many years as a stage and costume designer, I finally located the perfect dress for Mama on a 1925 magazine cover.  Mama would appear in a soft coral pink chiffon dress with lace bodice appropriate to the twenties yet sophisticated for her age and representation of the restaurant.
    I delivered the portrait and the client was, yet again, pleased and overjoyed with my work. Mama had been brought back and would now be well represented throughout the Farmhouse Restaurant in several stages of her life.   A large convex glass oval portrait was displayed in the lobby above an ornate fireplace and mantle.  Next to the mantle would hang a large, original family tree and history of Mama and her descendants which I also hand painted and framed for the customer. 
    Mama's Farmhouse Restaurant opened in the spring of 2009 with a VIP Reception to which I was pleased to be invited as a guest of honour and pose for pictures in front of Mama's Portrait with Mama's descendants and owners Bruce Johnson and Melinda (left) and Kelly and Jonathan Wimmer (right).

    Mama was a Great Great Grandmother instead of just someone's Mother.  Through the knowledge of Mathematics and the talents and skills of my artwork, I was able to bring her back and deliver her to a family, but it is important to remember that nothing can replace an original photograph of a loved one.  I might be able to substitute a Mother's photograph but nothing can take a Mother's place.
    Today, on this Mother's Day Sunday, get out the camera, take lots of photographs and know that each and every day henceforth you can say......I remember Mama. 
    My daughter, Tania Renae, is, at this very moment, on a plane returning home from a visit to a friend in British Columbia.  She has already phoned with her best wishes for my good day and says her appearance tonight, loaded with hugs, will be my special Mother's Day gift after her absence.  I couldn't ask for anything more.
    To my mother, Betty Ives, in Ontario, Canada, and to all Mother's, and Mother's to Be everywhere, I wish you all an equally joyous Happy Mother's Day.  Here's hoping your day is filled with sunshine, laughter and lots of family with camera's. 

Click here
to view more about the Opening Reception
of Mama's Farmhouse Restaurant
and see more of the artwork of Kathryn Rutherford

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Grandfather Stayed Too Long At The Fair

 "Oh, Dear, what could the matter be?
Dear, Dear, what could the matter be?
Oh, Dear, what could the matter be?
Johnny's too long at the Fair."

Traditional nursery rhyme
traced back to 1780's England

    Many of the customers who arrive at my Heirloom Art Studio for fine art or restoration services are deeply involved in genealogical research. They are often desperately seeking duplicates or restorations of photographic images of past generations which they, themselves, own or which they have begged, borrowed (and, believe it or not,  sometimes.......stolen) from other family members. 
    Anyone involved in historic or genealogy research can attest that information, as well as photographs, often turn up at the oddest times and are sometimes found in the strangest places.  You just never know when that one break in your research will happen. This posting is about just one of those unique (if not fortuitous) occasions for one of my clients.
    The phone call to the Studio began like any other with one of the eventual questions about my services:  Could I duplicate a Tintype?  My immediate answer was, "Absolutely", but I was cautiously suspicious about the item because the general public is often not knowledgeable about photographic history and tends to label any photographic image appearing on metal as a Tintype. 
    When the customer stated her metal photograph was nailed to a three-quarter inch thick wooden block, my suspicions were becoming increasingly confirmed that she did not have a Tintype in her possession.  I asked if the photograph had a black or copper base. Her answer confirmed my thoughts.
    "The metal looks like copper," the lady replied "but, it's the strangest thing....when you turn the photograph sideways the image looks like a negative."   Aha!  This is definitely NOT a Tintype and I proceeded to explain that most likely (sight unseen) she was holding a Photogravure plate adhered to a block of wood for the purpose of printing an image most likely on a press.  As to any restoration or reproduction, I instructed the woman to bring the piece into the Studio for evaluation and further discussion. 
    Throughout early history, books and manuscripts were mostly religious texts.  These were painstakingly reproduced by hand.  A picture comes to mind of selfless Monks sitting on hard benches in cold, monastic rooms, hovering over handmade papers for days on end, elegantly adding decorative touches to ornate letters in order to reproduce scripture and text. 
    The main method used to reproduce photographic images and textual thoughts in mass production remained, for much of history, woodblock printing.  Skilled artists would carve reverse images in the surface of wood which would then be hand inked using a roller and hand pressed onto paper.  This was a detailed, but still labour intensive way to create multiple images and the only way to produce a portrait image.
    Around 1040, the first known movable type system for reproducing text was created out of porcelain pieces, in China, by Bi Sheng.  Sheng used clay letter characters, which broke easily, but by 1298 AD, Wang Zhen had carved a more durable type from wood and developed a complex system of revolving tables and number-association with written Chinese characters that made typesetting and printing much more efficient.  
    Beginning in approximately 1436, Johannes Gutenberg and partner, Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill, began work on the first version of the printing press.  Around 1450, in Europe, Gutenberg introduced what is universally regarded as an independent invention of movable type. 
    Movable type is the system of printing and typography using movable pieces of metal type, made by casting from matrices struck by letter punches. Movable type allowed for much more flexible processes than hand copying or block printing.  Gutenberg was the first to create his type pieces from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony – the same components still used today.
    Compared to woodblock printing, movable type page setting was quicker and more durable. The metal type pieces were sturdier and the lettering more uniform, leading to standardized typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type and printing presses rapidly spread across Europe and later all around the world. Today, practically all movable type printing (if it is still used in this digital age) ultimately derives from Gutenberg's movable type printing press, which is often regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium.
    Photogravure, however, is an intaglio printing or photo-mechanical process.  A copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive.  The image is then etched, resulting in a high quality plate which, when printed, can reproduce all the detail and continuous tones of a photograph.
    The etched image is made up of small depressions in the surface of the printing plate. The cells are filled with ink via a roller and the excess ink is scraped off the surface of the plate with a blade.  A rubber-covered roller presses paper onto the surface of the plate and into contact with the ink within the etched cells.
    The earliest forms of Photogravure were developed in the 1830s by the original pioneers of photography itself, Henry Fox Talbot in England and Nicéphore Niépce in France. They were seeking a means to make prints that would not fade, by creating photographic images on plates that could then be etched. The etched plates could then be printed using a traditional printing press. These early images were among the first photographs, pre-dating daguerreotypes and the later wet-collodion photographic processes like glass Ambrotypes. Fox Talbot worked on extending the process in the 1850s and patented it in 1852  under the name "photographic engraving" and 1858 as "photoglyphic engraving".
    Photogravure, in its mature form, was developed in 1878 by a Czech painter, Karel Klíč, who built on Talbot's research. This process, the one still in use today, is called the Talbot-Klič process.
    It is relatively easy to identify a Photogravure print. Printed images have warm blacks which often appear soft but, register an amazing range of subtle gray shades. The unique tonal range comes from Photogravure's variable depth of etch, that is, the shadows are etched many times deeper than the highlights. Unlike half-tone processes which merely vary the size of dots to distinguish light areas from dark, the actual quantity and depth of ink wells are varied in a Photogravure plate and are often blended into a smooth tone by the printing process.
    Look at the print with a good magnifying glass, and you will see a characteristic honeycomb appearance. This is caused by the grid used in the printing process to etch the plate. The dark areas will often seem pitted.
    Because of its high quality and richness, Photogravure was used for both original fine art prints and for photo-reproduction of works from other media such as painting reproduction. Due to the high cost of the metal used in the process, expensive and exquisite books of art produced using this method are often referred to as Copper Plate editions.
    Photogravure is distinguished from Rotogravure in that Photogravure uses a flat copper plate etched rather deeply and printed by hand, while in Rotogravure, as the name implies, a rotary cylinder is only lightly etched and it is a factory printing process for newspapers, magazines, and packaging.
    Here is an odd fact:  In France the correct term for Photogravure is Héliogravure, while the French term Photogravure refers to ANY photo-based etching technique.
    Gravure printing is/was usually used for long, high-quality print runs such as books, magazines, mail-order catalogues, packaging, and printing onto fabric and wallpaper. It was also used for printing postage stamps.
    But, what of the image in question belonging to our Studio customer?  The woman from the phone call arrived at the Studio and produced her photographic plate.  The image was, indeed, a Photogravure plate of copper attached to a block of wood by short, large headed nails.  You can see the exact block in the photograph above.  The black ink stains on the wood confirmed that it was created for printing purposes.
    I provided the woman with a brief outline of the purpose and method of creating her possession, then asked if she knew the man in the portrait or how she had acquired the antiquated piece.
    "Well, that's a funny story," the woman responded.  "I am tracing my family history.  I have been searching for a photograph of my Grandfather but couldn't find one anywhere and no one in the family seems to have one.  He was a very prominent man in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I live."
    "One day," she continued "I decided to check out a flea market at the local fair grounds.  I was rummaging through a box of stuff in a particular person's booth and picked up this unusual item.  I had no idea what it was but, it  looked like a weird photograph.  When I turned it over, there was my Grandfather's name!!!"
    Sure enough, the woman turned over the piece for me to view and there, neatly inscribed in fancy pencil script, was the full name and address of her Grandfather.  What an incredible find!
    The woman simply had to purchase the block and was fortunate enough to obtain it for a mere five dollars.  Had she informed the seller of what importance the piece was to her family history or if either had known what the item really was, I am certain the final purchase price would have been exceedingly more.  Ignorance is sometimes bliss and I usually caution my listeners to ere on the side of the unknown when transacting any such purchase.
    As for my contributing services, I provided the lady with two types of reproduction.  Using traditional printing tools and methods, I inked the plate and printed a one-of-a-kind fine art Intaglio print on acid free, fine art paper suitable for framing.  I then went into the darkroom and photographed the plate, produced a negative which I reversed, restored and printed in multiple enlargements for all the family members.
    The final task was to approximately date the photograph and send the woman on her way to the Knoxville News-Sentinel Newspaper.   The objective there would be to see what could be obtained in the morgue (the proper name for newspaper archives) in respect to any story publicized about this Grandfather who had gone missing so long ago.
    Several days later the woman phoned to give me an excited report.  The newspaper had located the published story about her Grandfather complete with a photograph printed from the Photogravure plate now in the family's possession.   It seems that Grandfather had been presented with some award for which he displayed, in the photograph, a pin which was only vaguely discernible on the lapel of his suit.   The newspaper supplied the woman with a copy of the article and photograph from their files and Grandfather's image and accolades were once again back home and proudly added to the family history. 
    An interesting note is that, nowadays, the Photogravure and other antiquated printing processes are undergoing something of a revival.   As computer and laser technology have driven down the cost of producing the metal printing plates, these machines have opened up many interesting, innovative uses for the process of Photogravure, or photo etching as it sometimes called these days.  As digital reproduction becomes more readily available to the public, fine artists and craftsmen are turning back to the specialty processes where their artwork and images are becoming highly praised, valued and sold as more exclusive fine art and decorative creations.  Hmmm....what goes around, comes around, eh.
    As for the moral of today's story...the next time you are digging through someone else's pile of junk you just never now what, or who, you are going to discover.  It might not be Johnny who stayed too long at the fair, but who would figure your own Grandfather might follow in his footsteps only to come home more than eighty years after he disappeared.  Better late than never, I believe.